At 25 Bob Hetzel had become a Friedmanite. At 80 Milton Friedman had become a Hetzelian

Watch this after 11:35.

…yes, Friedman went further than Bob. Friedman had also become a market monetarist. He wanted to use the market not only to evaluate monetary policy, but also to implement monetary policy.

HT Sassa

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The un-anchoring of inflation expectations – 1970s style monetary policy, but now with deflation

In country after country it is now becoming clear that we are heading for outright deflation. This is particularly the case in Europe – both inside and outside the euro area – where most central banks are failing to keep inflation close to their own announced inflation targets.

What we are basically seeing is an un-anchoring of inflation expectations. What is happening in my view is that central bankers are failing to take responsibility for inflation and in a broader sense for the development in nominal spending. Central bankers simply are refusing to provide an nominal anchor for the economy.

To understand this process and to understand what has gone wrong I think it is useful to compare the situation in two distinctly different periods - the Great Inflation (1970s and earlier 1980s) and the Great Moderation (from the mid-1980s to 2007/8).

The Great Inflation – “Blame somebody else for inflation”

Monetary developments were quite similar across countries in the Western world during the 1970s. What probably best describes monetary policy in this period is that central banks in general did not take responsibility for the development in inflation and in nominal spending – maybe with the exception of the Bundesbank and the Swiss National Bank.

In Milton Friedman’s wonderful TV series Free to Choose from 1980 he discusses how central bankers were blaming everybody else than themselves for inflation (see here)

As Friedman points out labour unions, oil prices (the OPEC) and taxes were said to have caused inflation to have risen. That led central bankers like then Fed chairman Arthur Burns to argue that to reduce inflation it was necessary to introduce price and wage controls.

Friedman of course rightly argued that the only way to curb inflation was to reduce central bank money creation, but in the 1970s most central bankers had lost faith in the fundamental truth of the quantity theory of money.

Said in another way central bankers in the 1970s simply refused to take responsibility for the development in nominal spending and therefore for inflation. As a consequence inflation expectations became un-anchored as the central banks did not provide an nominal anchor. The result was predictable (for any monetarist) – the price level driffed aimlessly, inflation increased, became highly volatile and unpredictable.

Another thing which was characteristic about monetary policy in 1970s was the focus on trade-offs – particularly the Phillips curve relationship that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment (even in the long run). Hence, central bankers used high unemployment – caused by supply side factors – as an excuse not to curb money creation and hence inflation. We will see below that central bankers today find similar excuses useful when they refuse to take responsibility for ensuring nominal stability.

The Great Moderation – “Inflation is always and everywhere monetary phenomenon” 

That all started to change as Milton Friedman’s monetarist counterrevolution started to gain influence during the 1970s and in 1979 the newly appointed Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker started what would become a global trend towards central banks again taking responsibility for providing nominal stability and in the early 1990s central banks around the world moved to implement clearly defined nominal policy rules – mostly in the form of inflation targets (mostly around 2%) starting with the Reserve Bank of  New Zealand in 1990.

Said in the other way from the mid-1980s or so central banks started to believe in Milton Friedman’s dictum that “Inflation is always and everywhere monetary phenomenon” and more importantly they started to act as if they believed in this dictum. The result was predictable – inflation came down dramatically and became a lot more predictable and nominal spending/NGDP growth became stable.

By taking responsibility for nominal stability central banks around the world had created an nominal anchor, which ensured that the price mechanism in general could ensure an efficient allocation of resources. This was the great success of the Great Moderation period.

The only problem was that few central bankers understood why and how this was working. Robert Hetzel obvious was and still is a notable exception and he is telling us that reason we got nominal stability is exactly because central banks took responsibility for providing a nominal anchor.

That unfortunately ended suddenly in 2008.

The Great Recession – back to the bad habits of the 1970s

If we compare the conduct of monetary policy around the world over the past 5-6 years with the Great Inflation and Great Moderation periods I think it is very clear that we to a large extent has returned to the bad habits of the 1970s. That particularly is the case in Europe, while there are signs that monetary policy in the US, the UK and Japan is gradually moving back to practices similar to the Great Moderation period.

So what are the similarities with the 1970s?

1) Central banks refuse to acknowledge inflation (and NGDP growth) is a monetary phenomenon.

2) Central banks are concerned about trade-offs and have multiple targets (often none-monetary) rather focusing on one nominal target. 

Regarding 1) We have again and again heard central bankers say that they are “out of ammunition” and that they cannot ease monetary policy because interest rates are at zero – hence they are indirectly saying that they cannot control nominal spending growth, the money supply and the price level. Again and again we have heard ECB officials say that the monetary transmission mechanism is “broken”.

Regarding 2) Since 2008 central banks around the world have de facto given up on their inflation targets. In Europe for now nearly two years inflation has undershot the inflation targets of the ECB, the Riksbank, the Polish central bank, the Czech central bank and the Swiss National Bank etc.

And to make matters worse these central banks quite openly acknowledge that they don’t care much about the fact that they are not fulfilling their own stated inflation targets. Why? Because they are concerning themselves with other new (ad hoc!) targets – such as the development in asset prices or household debt.

The Swedish Riksbank is an example of this. Under the leadership of Riksbank governor the Stefan Ingves the Riksbank has de facto given up its inflation targeting regime and is now targeting everything from inflation, credit growth, property prices and household debt. This is completely ad hoc as the Riksbank has not even bothered to tell anybody what weight to put on these different targets.

It is therefore no surprise that the markets no longer see the Riksbank’s official 2% inflation target as credible. Hence, market expectations for Swedish inflation is consistency running below 2%. In 1970s the Riksbank failed because it effectively was preoccupied with hitting an unemployment target. Today the Riksbank is failing – for the same reason: It is trying to hit another other non-monetary target – the level of household debt.

European central bankers in the same way as in the 1970s no longer seem to understand or acknowledge that they have full control of nominal spending growth and therefore inflation and as a consequence they de facto have given up providing a nominal anchor for the economy. The result is that we are seeing a gradual un-anchoring of inflation expectations in Europe and this I believe is the reason that we are likely to see deflation becoming the “normal” state of affairs in Europe unless fundamental policy change is implemented.

Every time we get a new minor or larger negative shock to the European economy – banking crisis in Portugal or fiscal and political mess in France – we will just sink even deeper into deflation and since there is nominal anchor nothing will ensure that we get out of the deflationary trap. This is of course the “Japanese scenario” where the Bank of Japan for nearly two decade refused to take responsibility for providing an nominal anchor.

And as we continue to see a gradual unchoring of inflation expectations it is also clear that the economic system is becomimg increasingly dysfunctional and the price system will work less and less efficiently – exactly as in the 1970s. The only difference is really that while the problem in 1970s was excessively high inflation the problem today is deflation. But the reason is the same – central banks refusal to take responsibility for providing a nominal anchor.

Shock therapy is needed to re-anchor inflation expectations

The Great Inflation came to an end when central banks around the world finally took responsibility for providing a nominal anchor for the economy through a rule based monetary policy based on the fact that the central bank is in full control of nominal spending growth in the economy. To do that ‘shock therapy’ was needed.

For example example the Federal Reserve starting in 1979-82 fundamentally changed its policy and communication about its policy. It took responsibility for providing nominal stability. That re-anchored inflation expectations in the US and started a period of a very high level of nominal stability – stable and predictable growth in nominal spending and inflation.

To get back to a Great Moderation style regime central banks need to be completely clear that they take responsibility for for ensuring nominal stability and that they acknowledge that they have full control of nominal spending growth and as a consequence also the development in inflation. That can be done by introducing a clear nominal targeting – either restating inflation targets or even better introducing a NGDP targeting.

Furthermore, central banks should make it clear that there is no limits on the central bank’s ability to create money and controlling the money base. Finally central banks should permanently make it clear that you can’t have your cake and eat it – central banks can only have one target. It is the Tinbergen rule. There is one instrument – the money base – should the central bank can only hit one target. Doing anything else will end in disaster. 

The Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan have certainly moved in that direction of providing a nominal anchor in the last couple of years, while most central banks in Europe – including most importantly the ECB – needs a fundamental change of direction in policy to achieve a re-anchoring of inflation expectations and thereby avoiding falling even deeper into the deflationary trap.

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PS This post has been greatly inspired by re-reading a number of papers by Robert Hetzel on the Quantity Theory of Money and how to understand the importance of central bank credibility. In that sense this post is part of my series of “Tribute posts” to Robert Hetzel in connection with his 70 years birthday.

PPS Above I assume that central banks have responsibility for providing a nominal anchor for the economy. After all if a central bank has a monopoly on money creation then the least it can do is to live up to this responsibility. Otherwise it seems pretty hard to argue why there should be any central bank at all.

Happy birthday Bob!

Today is the day. July 3 2014. Robert Hetzel is turning 70 today. Happy birthday Bob! I hope you will have a great day with your wife Mary and the rest of your family.

To quote myself:

Bob has been a great inspiration to me since the early 1990s and he is undoubtedly one of the economists who have had the greatest influence on my own thinking about monetary matters. Equally important today is that I am very happy to say that Bob is not only a professional inspiration. I am also proud to call Bob my friend.

And yes I write quite a bit about Bob’s contribution to monetary theory and the plan is certainly that I will continue to do that in the future. I will continue my series on Bob’s contributions in the coming weeks, but for now have a look at what I have already written about him over the last couple of years.

This is a list of Hetzel related blog posts:

The Fisher-Hetzel Standard: A much improved “gold standard”
Bob Hetzel’s great idea
Celebrating Robert Hetzel at 70
The ECB should give Bob Hetzel a call
Forget about Yellen or Summers – it should be Chuck Norris or Bob Hetzel
Bob Hetzel speaking at CEPOS
The Hetzel-Ireland Synthesis
The eagle has landed – Bob Hetzel visits Denmark
If you want to know about the Great Recession read Robert Hetzel
Firefighter Arsonists – the myth of the central bankers as ‘good’ crisis managers
A few words that would help Kuroda hit his target
Imagine the FOMC had listened to Al Broaddus in 2003
Monetary disorder – not animal spirits – caused the Great Recession
The cheapest and most effective firewall in the world
Buy “The Great Recession: Market Failure or Policy Failure”
Guess what Greenspan said on November 17 1992

And here is a cartoon for you Bob. I am sure you will enjoy it.

Friedman

PS Doug Irwin was kind enough to send me the cartoon. It is from New York Times in 1970. I hope there is no copyright issue, but after all this is a kind of birthday present to Bob so I will have to risk it. After all Milton used to be Bob’s (favorite) teacher at the University of Chicago. 

PPS This is me in London yesterday being interviewed about the ECB. And yes it is very Hetzelian.

 

 

The Fisher-Hetzel Standard: A much improved “gold standard”

Anybody who follow my blog will know that I am not a great fan of the gold standard or any other form of fixed exchange rate policy. However, I am a great fan of policy rules that reduce monetary policy discretion to an absolute minimum.

Central bankers’ discretionary powers should be constrained and I fundamentally share Milton Friedman’s ideal that the central bank should be replaced by a “computer” – an automatic monetary policy rule.

Admittedly a gold standard or for that matter a currency board set-up reduce monetary policy discretion to a minimum. However, the main problem in my view is that different variations of a fixed exchange rate regime tend to be pro-cyclical. Imagine for example that productivity growth picks up for whatever reason (for example deregulation or a wave of new innovations).

That would tend to push the country’s currency stronger. However, as the central bank is keeping the currency pegged a positive supply shock will cause the central bank to “automatically” increase the money base to offset the appreciation pressures (from the positive supply shock) on the currency.

Said in another way under any form of pegged exchange rate policy a supply shock leads to an “automatic” demand shock. A gold standard will stabilize the currency, but might very well destabilize the economy.

Hence, the problem with a traditional gold standard is not that it is rule based, but that the rule is the wrong rule. We want a rule that provides nominal stability – not a rule, which is pro-cyclical.

Merging Fisher and Hetzel

Irving Fisher more than a 100 years ago came up with a good alternative to the gold standard – his so-called Compensated Dollar Plan. Fisher’s idea was that the Federal Reserve – he was writing from a US perspective – basically should keep the US price level stable by devaluing/revaluing the dollar against the gold price dependent on whether the price level was above or below the targeted level. This would be a fully automatic rule and it would ensure nominal stability. The problem with the rule, however, is that it not necessarily was forward-looking.

I suggest that we can “correct” the problems with Compensated Dollar Plan by learning a lesson from Bob Hetzel. Has I have explained in my earlier blog post Bob Hetzel has suggested that the central bank should target market expectations for inflation based on inflation-linked bonds (in the US so-called TIPS).

Now imagine that we that we merge the ideas of Fisher and Hetzel. So our intermediate target is the gold price in dollars and our ultimate monetary policy goal is for example 2-year/2-year break-even inflation at for example 2%.

Under this Fisher-Hetzel Standard the Federal Reserve would announce that it would buy or sell gold in the open market to ensure that 2-year/2-year break-even inflation is always at 2%. If inflation expectations for some reason moves above 2% the Fed would sell gold and buy dollars.

By buying dollars the Fed automatically reduces the money base (and import prices for that matter). This will ultimately lead to lower money supply growth and hence lower inflation. Similarly if inflation expectations drop below 2% the Fed would sell dollar (print more money), which would cause actual inflation to increase.

One could imagine that the Fed implemented this rule by at every FOMC meeting – instead of announcing a target for the Fed funds rate – would announce a target range for the dollar/gold price. The target range could for example be +/- 10% around a central parity. Within this target range the dollar (and the price of gold) would fluctuate freely. That would allow the market to do most of the lifting in terms of hitting the 2% (expected) inflation target.

Of course I would really like something different, but…

Obviously this is not my preferred monetary policy set-up and I much prefer NGDP level targeting to any form of inflation targeting.

Nonetheless a Fisher-Hetzel Standard would first of all seriously reduce monetary policy discretion. It would also provide a very high level of nominal stability – inflation expectations would basically always be 2%. And finally we would completely get rid of any talk about using interest rates as an instrument in monetary policy and therefore all talk of the liquidity trap would stop. And of course there would be no talk about the coming hyperinflation due to the expansion of the money base.

And no – we would not “manipulate” any market prices – at least not any more than in the traditional gold standard set-up.

Now I look forward to hearing why this would not work. Internet Austrians? Gold bugs? Keynesians?

PS I should say that this post is not part of my series on Bob Hetzel’s work and Bob has never advocated this idea (as far as I know), but the post obviously has been inspired by thinking about monetary matters from a Hetzelian perspective – as most of my blog posts are.

PPS Obviously you don’t have to implement the Fisher-Hetzel Standard with the gold price – you can use whatever commodity price or currency.

Bob Hetzel’s great idea

As I have promised earlier I will in the coming weeks write a number of blog posts on Robert Hetzel’s contribution to monetary thinking celebrating that he will turn 70 on July 3. Today I will tell the story about what I regard to be Bob’s greatest and most revolutionary idea. An idea which I think marks the birth of Market Monetarism.

I should in that regard naturally say that Bob doesn’t talk about himself as market monetarist, but simply as a monetarist, but his ideas are at the centre of what in recent years has come to be known at Market Monetarism (I coined the phrase myself in 2011).

Here is how Bob describes his great idea in his book “The Monetary Policy of the Federal Reserve”:

“In February 1990, Richmond Fed President Robert Black testified before Congress on Representative Stephen Neal’s Joint Resolution 4009 mandating that the Fed achieved price stability with five years. Bob Black was a monetarist, and he recommend multiyear M2 targets. As an alternative, I had suggested Treasury issuance of matched-maturity securities half of which would be nominal and half indexed to the price level.  The yield difference, which would measure expected inflation, would be a nominal anchor provided that the Fed committed to stabilizing it.

The idea came from observing how exchange-rate depreciation in small open economies constrained central banks because of the way it passed through immediately to domestic inflation. With a market measure of expected inflation, monetary policy seen by markets as inflationary would immediately trigger an alarm even if inflation were slow to respond. I mentioned my proposal to Milton Friedman, who  encouraged me to write a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, which became Hetzel (1991).”

Bob developed his idea further in a number of papers published in the early 1990s. See for example here and here.

I remember when I first read about Bob’s idea I thought it was brilliant and was fast convinced that it would be much preferable to the traditional monetarist idea of money supply targeting. Milton Friedman obviously for decades advocated money supply targeting, but he also became convinced that Bob’s idea was preferable to his own idea.

Hence, in Friedman’s book Money Mischief (1992) he went on to publicly endorse Bob’s ideas. This is Friedman:

“Recently, Robert Hetzel has made an ingenious proposal that may be more feasible politically than my own earlier proposal for structural change, yet that promises to be highly effective in restraining inflationary bias that infects government…

…a market measure of expected inflation would make it possible to monitor the Federal Reserve’s behavior currently and to hold it accountable. That is difficult at present because of the “long lag” Hetzel refers to between Fed’s actions and the market reaction. Also, the market measure would provide the Fed itself with information to guide its course that it now lacks.”

In a letter to then Bank of Israel governor Michael Bruno in 1991 Friedman wrote (quoted from Hetzel 2008):

“Hetzel has suggested a nominal anchor different from those you or I may have considered in the past…His proposal is…that the Federal Reserve be instructed by Congress to keep that (nominal-indexed yield) difference below some number…It is the first nominal anchor that has been suggested that seems to me to have real advantages over the nominal money supply. Clearly it is far better than a price level anchor which…is always backward looking.”

The two versions of Bob’s idea

It was not only Friedman who liked Hetzel’s ideas. President Clinton’s assistant treasury secretary Larry Summers also liked the idea – or at least the idea about issuing bonds linked to inflation. This led the US Treasury to start issuing so-called Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) in 1997. Since then a number of countries in the world have followed suit and issued their own inflation-linked bonds (popularly known as linkers).

However, while Bob succeed in helping the process of issuing inflation-linked bonds in the US he was less successfully in convincing the Fed to actually use market expectations for inflation as a policy goal.

In what we could call the strict version of Bob’s proposal the central bank would directly target the market’s inflation expectations so they always were for example 2%. This would be a currency board-style policy where monetary policy was fully automatic. Hence, if market expectations for, for example inflation two years ahead were below the 2% target then the central bank would automatically expand the money base – by for example buying TIPS, foreign currency, equities or gold for that matter. The central bank would continue to expand the money base until inflation expectations had moved back to 2%. The central bank would similarly reduce the money base if inflation expectations were higher than the targeted 2%.

In this set-up monetary policy would fully live up to Friedman’s ideal of replacing the Fed with a “computer”. There would be absolutely no discretion in monetary policy. Everything would be fully rule based and automatic.

In the soft version of Bob’s idea the central bank will not directly target market inflation expectations, but rather use the market expectations as an indicator for monetary policy. In this version the central bank would likely also use other indicators for monetary policy – for example money supply growth or surveys of professional forecasters.

One can argue that this is what the Federal Reserve was actually doing from around 2000-3 to 2008. Another example of a central bank that de facto comes close to conducting monetary policy in way similar to what has been suggested by Hetzel is the Bank of Israel (and here there might have been a more or less direct influence through Bruno, but also through Stanley Fisher and other University of Chicago related Bank of Israel officials). Hence, for more than a decade the BoI has communicated very clearly in terms of de facto targeting market expectations for inflation and the result has been a remarkable degree of nominal stability (See here).

Even in the soft version it is likely that the fact that the central bank openly is acknowledging market expectations as a key indicator for monetary policy will likely do a lot to provide nominal stability. This is in fact what happened in the US – and partly in other places during the 2000s – until everything when badly wrong in 2008 and inflation expectations were allowed to collapse (more on that below).

Targeting market expectations and the monetary transmission mechanism

It is useful when trying to understand the implications of Bob’s idea to target the market expectations for inflation to understand how the monetary transmission mechanism would work in such a set-up.

As highlighted above thinking about fixed exchange rate regimes gave Bob the idea to target market inflation expectations, and fundamentally the transmission mechanism under both regimes are very similar. In both regimes both money demand and the money supply (both for the money base and broad money) become endogenous.

Both money demand and the money supply will automatically adjust to always “hit” the nominal anchor – whether the exchange rate or inflation expectations.

One thing that is interesting in my view is that both in a fixed exchange rate regime and in Bob’s proposal the actual implementation of the policy will likely happen through adjustments in money demand - or said in another way the market will implement the policy. Or that will at least be the case if the regime is credible.

Lets first look at a credible fixed exchange regime and lets say that for some reason the exchange rate is pushed away from the central bank’s exchange rate target so the actual exchange rate is stronger than the targeted rate. If the target is credible market participants will know that the central bank will act – intervene in the currency market to sell the currency – so to ensure that in the “next period” the exchange rate will be back at the targeted rate.

As market participants realize this they will reduce their currency holdings and that in itself will push back the exchange rate to the targeted level. Hence, under 100% credibility of the fixed exchange rate regime the central bank will actually not need to do any intervention to ensure that the peg is kept in place – there will be no need to change the currency reserve/money base. The market will effectively ensure that the pegged is maintained.

The mechanism is very much the same in a regime where the central bank targets the market’s inflation expectations. Lets again assume that the regime is fully credible. Lets say that the central bank targets 2% inflation (expectations) and lets assume that for some reason a shock has pushes inflation expectations above the 2%.

This should cause the central bank to automatically reduce the money base until inflation expectations have been pushed back to 2%. However, as market participants realize this they will also realize that the value of money (the inverse of the price level) will increase – as the central bank is expected to reduce the money base. This will cause market participants to increase money demand. For a given money base this will in itself push down inflation until the 2% inflation expectations target is meet.

Hence, under full credibility the central bank would not have to do a lot to implement its target – either a fixed exchange rate target or a Hetzel style target – the markets would basically take care of everything and the implementation of the target would happen through shifts in money demand rather than in the money base. That said, it should of course be noted that it is exactly because the central bank has full control of the money base and can always increase or decrease it as much as it wants that the money demand  taking care of the actual “lifting” so the central bank don’t actually have to do much in terms of changing the money base.

This basically means that the money base will remain quite stable while the broad money supply/demand will fluctuate – maybe a lot – as will money-velocity. Hence, under a credible Hetzel style regime there will be a lot of nominal stability, but it will look quite non-monetarist if one think of monetarism of an idea to keep money supply growth stable. Obviously there is nothing non-monetarist about ensuring a stable nominal anchor. The anchor is just different from what Friedman – originally – suggested.

Had the Fed listened to Bob then there would have been no Great Recession

Effectively during the Great Moderation – or at least since the introduction of TIPS in 1997 – the world increasingly started to look as if the Federal Reserve actually had introduced Bob’s proposal and targeted break-even inflation expectations (around 2.5%). The graph below illustrates this.

BE inflation

The graph shows that from 2004 to 2008 we see that the 5-year “break-even” inflation rate fluctuated between 2 and 3%. We could also note that we during that period also saw a remarkable stable growth in nominal GDP growth. In that sense we can say that monetary policy was credible as it ensured nominal stability – defined as stable inflation expectations.

However, in 2008 “something” happened and break-even inflation expectations collapsed. Said, in another way – the Fed’s credibility broke down. The markets no longer believed that the Fed would be able to keep inflation at 2.5% going forward. Afterwards, however, one should also acknowledge that some credibility has returned as break-even inflation particularly since 2011 has been very stable around 2%. This by the way is contrary to the ECB – as euro zone break-even inflation on most time horizons is well-below the ECB’s official 2% inflation target.

While most observers have been arguing that the “something”, which happened was the financial crisis and more specifically the collapse of Lehman Brothers Market Monetarists – and Bob Hetzel – have argued that what really happened was a significant monetary contraction and this is very clearly illustrated by the collapse in inflation expectations in 2008.

Now imagine what would have happened if the Fed had implemented what I above called the strict version of Bob’s proposal prior to the collapse of Lehman Brother. And now lets say that Lehman Brothers collapses (out of the blue). Such a shock likely would cause a significant decline in the money-multiplier and a sharp decline in the broad money supply and likely also a sharp rise in money demand as investors run away from risky assets.

This shock on its own is strongly deflationary – and if the shock is big enough this potentially could give a shock to the Fed’s credibility and therefore we initially could see inflation expectations drop sharply as we actually saw in 2008.

However, had Bob’s regime been in place then the Fed would automatically have moved into action (not in a discretionary fashion, but following the rule). There would not have been any discussion within the FOMC whether to ease monetary policy or not. In fact there would not be a need for a FOMC at all – monetary policy would be 100% automatic.

Hence, as the shock hits and inflation expectations drop the Fed would automatically – given the rule to target for example 2.5% break-even inflation expectations – increase the money base as much as necessary to keep inflation expectations at 2.5%.

This would effectively have meant that the monetary consequences of Lehman Brothers’ collapse would have been very limited and the macroeconomic contraction therefore would have been much, much smaller and we would very likely not have had a Great Recession. In a later blog post I will return to Bob’s explanation for the Great Recession, but as this discussion illustrates it should be very clear that Bob – as I do – strongly believe that the core problem was monetary disorder rather than market failure.

Hetzel and NGDP targeting

There is no doubt in my mind that the conduct of monetary policy would be much better if it was implemented within a market-based set-up as suggested by Robert Hetzel than when monetary policy is left to discretionary decisions.

That said as other Market Monetarists and I have argued that central banks in general should target the nominal GDP level rather than expected inflation as originally suggested by Bob. This means that we – the Market Monetarists – believe that governments should issue NGDP-linked bonds and that central banks should use NGDP expectations calculated from the pricing of these bonds.

Of course that means that the target is slightly different than what Bob originally suggested, but the method is exactly the same and the overall outcome will likely be very similar whether one or the other target is chosen if implemented in the strict version, where the central bank effectively would be replaced by a “computer” (the market).

In the coming days and weeks I will continue my celebration of Robert Hetzel. In my next Hetzel-post I will look at “Bob’s model” and I will try to explain how Bob makes us understand the modern world within a quantity theoretical framework.

PS I should say that Bob is not the only economist to have suggested using markets and market expectations to implement monetary policy and to ensure nominal stability. I would particularly highlight the proposals of Irving Fisher (the Compensated Dollar Plan), Earl Thompson (nominal wage targeting “The Perfect Monetary System”) and of course Scott Sumner (NGDP targeting).

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Suggested further reading:

I have in numerous early posts written about Bob’s suggestion for targeting market inflation expectations. See for example here:

A few words that would help Kuroda hit his target
How to avoid a repeat of 1937 – lessons for both the fed and the BoJ
The cheapest and most effective firewall in the world

The ECB should give Bob Hetzel a call

The ECB is very eager to stress that the monetary transmission mechanism in some way is broken and that the policy measures needed is not quantitative easing, but measures to repair the monetary transmission mechanism.

In regard to ECB’s position I find this quote from a excellent paper – What Is a Central Bank? – by Bob Hetzel very interesting:

For example, in Japan, the argument is common that the bad debts of banks have broken the monetary transmission mechanism. The central bank can acquire assets to increase the reserves of commercial banks, but the weak capital position of banks limits their willingness to engage in additional lending. As in the real bills world, the marketplace controls the ability of the central bank to create independent changes in money that change prices.

According to the quantity theory as opposed to the real bills view, a central bank exercises its control over the public’s nominal expenditure through money (monetary base) creation. That control does not derive from the central bank’s influence over financial intermediation. A commercial bank acquires assets by making its liabilities attractive to individuals who forego consumption to hold them. In contrast, a central bank acquires assets through the ability to impose a tax (seigniorage) that comes from money creation. It imposes the tax directly on holders of cash and indirectly on holders of bank deposits to the extent that banks hold reserves against deposits.

Bob wrote the paper while he was a visiting scholar at the Bank of Japan in 2003.

It is striking how the present position of the ECB is similar to the BoJ’s position at the time Bob spend time there. Maybe the ECB should invite Bob to pay a visit?

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See also Bob’s paper Japanese Monetary Policy and Deflation.

It is time to get government out of US housing finance

Scott Sumner has a great post on the very scary state of US housing finance. This is something that many Europeans might not realise, but when it comes to housing finance the US is likely one of the most socialist countries among the developed economies of the world.

This is from the Wall Street Journal article Scott quotes in his post:

Fannie and Freddie, which remain under U.S. conservatorship, and federal agencies continue to backstop the vast majority of new mortgages being issued.

Yes, that is true – the two largest mortgage lenders in the US is effectively government owned. So to the extent that you think that there was a bubble in US property market prior to 2008 – I am not sure that there was – then you should probably forget the talk about overly easy monetary policy and instead focus on the massive US government involvement in housing finance.

Post-2008 the regulatory move has been to tighten lending standards for mortgage lenders, but now we have this (also from the WSJ article):

The Obama administration and federal regulators are reversing course on some of the biggest post crisis efforts to tighten mortgage-lending standards amid concern they could snuff out the fledgling housing rebound and dent the economic recovery.

On Tuesday, Mel Watt, the newly installed overseer of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said the mortgage giants should direct their focus toward making more credit available to homeowners, a U-turn from previous directives to pull back from the mortgage market.

In coming weeks, six agencies, including Mr. Watt’s, are expected to finalize new rules for mortgages that are packaged into securities by private investors. Those rules largely abandon earlier proposals requiring larger down payments on mortgages in certain types of mortgage-backed securities.

My god…it seems like the Obama administration wants a new government subsidized subprime market. Good luck with that!

The regulatory wave that have rolled over the US banking and finance industry in the past five years has not made moral hazard problems smaller, but rather the opposite and the continued massive government involvement in housing finance is seriously adding to these problems.

It is very clear that the US housing finance system over the past couple of decades has become insanely politicized. An example is Mr. Watt – the newly appointed overseer of Fannie and Freddie. Mr. Watt do not have a background in finance or in economics. Rather he is a career politician. Is a career politician really what you want if you want to avoid moral hazard? I think not.

Blame Bill Clinton  

In his great book The Great Recession – Market Failure or Policy Failure? Robert Hetzel spells out how  the present housing finance debacle in the US started back in the 1990s during the Clinton administration – with strong bi-partisan support I should say. (See particular 10 in Bob’s book).

Hence, the Clinton administration set ambitious goals to raise homeownership in the US in a document called “The National Homeownership Strategy: Partners in the American Dream”.

The document starts with a message from president Clinton:

“…This past year, I directed HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros to work with leaders in the housing industry, with nonprofit organizations, and with leaders at every level of government to develop a plan to boost homeownership in America to an all-time high by the end of this century. The National Homeownership Strategy: Partners in the American Dream outlines a substantive, detailed plan to reach this goal. This report identifies specific actions that the federal government, its partners in state and local government, the private, nonprofit community, and private industry will take to lower barriers that prevent American families from becoming homeowners. Working together, we can add as many as eight million new families to America’s homeownership rolls by the year 2000.”

Did Clinton “succeed”? You bet he did. Just take a look at this graph of the US home ownership rate (I stole it from Bob’s book):

Homeownership rate US

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a clear connection between the US government’s stated goal of boosting homeownership and the actual sharp increasing in homeownership from around 1995.

Therefore, I also find it likely that the sharp increase in housing demand from the mid-1990s was a result of US government policies to subsidize housing finance rather than a result of overly easy monetary policy. There certainly also were other reasons such as demography, but direct and indirect subsidizes likely were the main culprit.

Forgetting monetary policy and increasing moral hazard

In the light of this I completely share Scott’s reaction to the latest policy actions from the Obama administration. It is particularly horrifying that the Obama administration consistently has undermined the efforts to ease US monetary policy during this crisis – among other things by appointing über hawkish Fed officials – while at the same time now is trying to “boost growth” by further increasing moral hazard problems in the US financial system. And just imagine what would have happened if Larry Summers had been appointed new Fed chairman…

That I believe once again shows how policy makers again and again prefer credit policies and quasi-fiscal policies to monetary policy. The result is that we are not really seeing any lift in nominal demand growth, but moral hazard problems continue to increase. That is the case in the US as well as in Europe. Or as Scott so clearly explains it:

So let’s see, we have to taper QE because otherwise the economy will “overheat.” After all, unemployment has fallen to 6.3% and many of the remaining unemployed are supposedly unemployable.  And yet we need to go back to the subprime mortgage economy to juice the economy.  Is that the view of the Fed? Forget about “getting in all the cracks,” can we stop opening up new cracks as wide as the Grand Canyon?”

Get government out of housing finance and implement a rule based monetary policy

The US government involvement in housing finance has been an utter failure. It has strongly increased Too Big To Fail problems and moral hazard in the US financial system and the latest initiatives are likely to further increase the risk of a new housing crisis.

There in my view is only one solution and that is to get the US government completely out of housing finance and to significantly scale back the US government’s (and the Federal Reserve’s) involvement in the credit markets. There are no economic valid arguments for why the US tax payers should subsidize housing finance.

Obviously one can argue that such badly needed reforms in the near-term could tighten financial and credit conditions, which effectively could cause a tightening of monetary conditions (through a drop in the money-multiplier). However, this is no argument against such reforms. Rather it is yet another argument why the Fed should implement a strictly rule based monetary policy – preferably a NGDP target.

If indeed housing finance reforms where to tighten credit conditions and cause the money-multiplier to drop then this can always be counteracted by an increase in the US money base. This of course would happen quasi-automatically under a strict NGDP target.

In that sense there is also a good argument for the Fed and the US government to coordinate such reforms. The US government should reduce its role in the credit markets to a minimum, while the Fed should commit itself to maintaining nominal stability and if needed postponing tapering or even expand quantitative easing as housing finance reform is implemented.

PS I hope this post clearly illustrate that Market Monetarists like Scott and myself are horrified by government involvement in such things as housing finance and that we are deeply concerned about moral hazard problems. We have in the past five years advocated monetary easing to ensure nominal stability, but we have NEVER advocated credit policies of any kind. As a higher level of nominal stability is returning particularly in the US we are likely to increasingly focus on moral hazard problem and yes in 1-2 years time we might start to sound quite hawkish in terms of the Fed’s monetary policy stance, but our views will not have changed. We continue to advocate that governments should get out of the credit markets and housing finance and that central banks should follow clear and transparent monetary policy rules to ensure nominal stability.

The Casselian-Mundelian view: An overvalued dollar caused the Great Recession

This is CNBC’s legendary Larry Kudlow in a comment to my previous post:

My friend Bob Mundell believes a massively over-valued dollar (ie, overly tight monetary policy) was proximate cause of financial freeze/meltdown.

Larry’s comment reminded me of my long held view that we have to see the Great Recession in an international perspective. Hence, even though I generally agree on the Hetzel-Sumner view of the cause – monetary tightening – of the Great Recession I think Bob Hetzel and Scott Sumner’s take on the causes of the Great Recession is too US centric. Said in another way I always wanted to stress the importance of the international monetary transmission mechanism. In that sense I am probably rather Mundellian – or what used to be called the monetary theory of the balance of payments or international monetarism.

Overall, it is my view that we should think of the global economy as operating on a dollar standard in the same way as we in the 1920s going into the Great Depression had a gold standard. Therefore, in the same way as Gustav Cassel and Ralph Hawtrey saw the Great Depression as result of gold hoarding we should think of the causes of the Great Recession as being a result of dollar hoarding.

In that sense I agree with Bob Mundell – the meltdown was caused by the sharp appreciation of the dollar in 2008 and the crisis only started to ease once the Federal Reserve started to provide dollar liquidity to the global markets going into 2009.

I have earlier written about how I believe international monetary disorder and policy mistakes turned the crisis into a global crisis. This is what I wrote on the topic back in May 2012:

In 2008 when the crisis hit we saw a massive tightening of monetary conditions in the US. The monetary contraction was a result of a sharp rise in money (dollar!) demand and as the Federal Reserve failed to increase the money supply we saw a sharp drop in money-velocity and hence in nominal (and real) GDP. Hence, in the US the drop in NGDP was not primarily driven by a contraction in the money supply, but rather by a drop in velocity.

The European story is quite different. In Europe the money demand also increased sharply, but it was not primarily the demand for euros, which increased, but rather the demand for US dollars. In fact I would argue that the monetary contraction in the US to a large extent was a result of European demand for dollars. As a result the euro zone did not see the same kind of contraction in money (euro) velocity as the US. On the other hand the money supply contracted somewhat more in the euro zone than in the US. Hence, the NGDP contraction in the US was caused by a contraction in velocity, but in the euro zone the NGDP contraction was caused by both a contraction in velocity and in the money supply, reflecting a much less aggressive response by the ECB than by the Federal Reserve.

To some extent one can say that the US economy was extraordinarily hard hit because the US dollar is the global reserve currency. As a result global demand for dollar spiked in 2008, which caused the drop in velocity (and a sharp appreciation of the dollar in late 2008).

In fact I believe that two factors are at the centre of the international transmission of the crisis in 2008-9.

First, it is key to what extent a country’s currency is considered as a safe haven or not. The dollar as the ultimate reserve currency of the world was the ultimate safe haven currency (and still is) – as gold was during the Great Depression. Few other currencies have a similar status, but the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen have a status that to some extent resembles that of the dollar. These currencies also appreciated at the onset of the crisis.

Second, it is completely key how monetary policy responded to the change in money demand. The Fed failed to increase the money supply enough to meet the increase in the dollar demand (among other things because of the failure of the primary dealer system). On the other hand the Swiss central bank (SNB) was much more successful in responding to the sharp increase in demand for Swiss francs – lately by introducing a very effective floor for EUR/CHF at 1.20. This means that any increase in demand for Swiss francs will be met by an equally large increase in the Swiss money supply. Had the Fed implemented a similar policy and for example announced in September 2008 that it would not allow the dollar to strengthen until US NGDP had stopped contracting then the crisis would have been much smaller and would long have been over…

…I hope to have demonstrated above that the increase in dollar demand in 2008 not only hit the US economy but also led to a monetary contraction in especially Europe. Not because of an increased demand for euros, lats or rubles, but because central banks tightened monetary policy either directly or indirectly to “manage” the weakening of their currencies. Or because they could not ease monetary policy as members of the euro zone. In the case of the ECB the strict inflation targeting regime let the ECB to fail to differentiate between supply and demand shocks which undoubtedly have made things a lot worse.

So there you go – you have to see the crisis in an international monetary perspective and the Fed could have avoided the crisis if it had acted to ensure that the dollar did not become significantly “overvalued” in 2008. So yes, I am as much a Mundellian (hence a Casselian) as a Sumnerian-Hetzelian when it comes to explaining the Great Recession. A lot of my blog posts on monetary policy in small-open economies and currency competition (and why it is good) reflect these views as does my advocacy for what I have termed an Export Price Norm in commodity exporting countries. Irving Fisher’s idea of a Compensated Dollar Plan has also inspired me in this direction.

That said, the dollar should be seen as an indicator or monetary policy tightness in both the US and globally. The dollar could be a policy instrument (or rather an intermediate target), but it is not presently a policy instrument and in my view it would be catastrophic for the Fed to peg the dollar (for example to the gold price).

Unlike Bob Mundell I am very skeptical about fixed exchange rate regimes (in all its forms – including currency unions and the gold standard). However, I do think it can be useful for particularly small-open economies to use the exchange rate as a policy instrument rather than interest rates. Here I think the policies of particularly the Czech, the Swiss and the Singaporean central banks should serve as inspiration.

The Angell rule – a market approach to monetary policy

I have for some time had the idea that Federal Reserve thinking in the second half of the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s was dominated by a view that in many ways resembles Market Monetarist thinking. Here especially Wayne Angell and  Manuel “Manley” Johnson played an important role. Johnson was on the Fed’s Board of Governors from 1986 to 1990, while Angell served on the Board of Governors from 1986 until 1994. Both had been appointed by President Reagan. You can think of them as the original Supply Side Monetarists.

Like Market Monetarists Angell and Johnson believed (and still do as far as I can judge) that the best way to judge the monetary policy stance is by observing the price action in financial markets. Angell particularly stressed commodity prices as an indicator of monetary policy, while Johnson advocated looking at a broader range of financial markets – ranging from commodity and equity prices to the exchange rate and the yield curve.

Johnson explained his unique take on monetary policy in his excellent book Monetary Policy, A Market Price Approach, which he co-authored with Robert Keleher. See more on Keleher’s and Johnson’s thinking here.

The Angell rule

A couple of days ago I came across an interesting paper by Wayne Angell from 1991. In the paper – “Commodity Prices and Monetary Policy – What Have we Learned?” from 1991. In the paper Angell spells out his thinking about commodity prices as forward-looking indicators of the monetary policy stance. Angell is quite clear that both interest rates and monetary aggregates are quite imperfect indicators of the monetary policy stance.

While reading the paper I got the idea that Angell not only spelled out an idea about how to conduct monetary policy, but maybe he was also describing actual US monetary policy during the years while he was at the Fed. In his paper Angell basically is saying that the Fed should ensure price stability and to achieve that should use commodity prices (among other things) as an indicator of future price pressures.

Hence, effectively Angell was suggesting that the Fed should follow a rule for the money base where the money base is increased or decreased dependent on the development in commodity prices.

Looking at the development in the money base during the time Angell was at the Fed it surely looks like this is effectively was the policy the Fed actually followed. Just take a look at the graph below.

Angell rule

You don’t need advanced econometric studies to see that there is a pretty clear relationship.

As commodity prices (the CRB Index) drop the Fed reacts within some quarters by expanding the growth rate of the money base. This is for example the case from 1984 to 1987 and again from 1989 to 1993.

Hence, the Fed de facto seems to have changed the monetary policy stance based on the signals from financial market data. This is pretty much in line with general Market Monetarist recommendations. However, it should of course be remembered that while Market Monetarists advocate NGDP level targeting Angell effectively favours Price Level Targeting (“Price Stability”).

Furthermore, this is also the period in Fed history where the Fed move toward what Bob Hetzel has termed a Lean-Against-the-Wind with credibility policy. Angell again and again has stressed the need for a rule based monetary policy rather than a discretionary monetary policy.

The lesson we should learn from the Angell rule is not that we should reintroduce the the Angell rule – at least not in the sense that we should use only commodity prices as an indicator of the monetary policy (Angell never argued that), but that market prices are excellent indicators of the monetary policy stance. This is of course also why we need a proper NGDP futures markets, which the Fed could utilize in the conduct of monetary policy.

Firefighter Arsonists – the myth of the central bankers as ‘good’ crisis managers

The recent debate about who should be the new Federal Reserve governor has made me think about the general misperception that a good central bank governor is a good “crisis manager”.

This is for example Ezra Klein endorsing Larry Summer for new Fed chief:

Summers knows how to manage a crisis. This White House is particularly attuned to the idea that the economy can fall apart at any moment. Summers, they think, knows what to do when that happens. He was at the center of the Clinton administration’s efforts to fight back the various emerging-markets crises of the 1990s (remember “The Committee to Save the World”?). He was core to the Obama administration’s efforts to fight the financial crisis in 2009 and 2010. Few people on earth are as experienced at dealing with financial crises — both of the domestic and international variety — as Summers.
What is wrong with this argument?

First, of all the assumption is that crisis is a result of the market economy’s inherent instability and that the regulators’ and the central bankers’ role is to somehow correct these failures. There is no doubt that central bankers like this image as saviours of the world. However, history shows that again and again we are in fact talking about firefighter arsonists – central banks again and again have caused crisis and afterwards been hailed as the firefighters who flew in and saved the world.

Just take the ECB’s actions of the last couple of years. The introduction of the so-called OMT program is often said to have ended the fire that was (is) the euro zone crisis. But why did we have a euro crisis to begin with? Well, it is pretty hard to get around fact that the ECB’s two rate hikes in 2011 played a very significant role in igniting the crisis in the first place. So is the ECB a firefighter or an arsonist?

Second, describing central bankers as crisis managers and firefighters exactly defines monetary policy as first of all a highly discretionary discipline. There are no rules to follow. A crisis suddenly erupts and the clever and imaginative crisis manager – a Larry Summers style person – flies in and saves the day. This is often done with the introduction of enormous amounts of moral hazard into the global financial system.  This has certainly been the case during the Great Recession and it was certainly also the case when Summers was on “The Committee to Save the World”.

committee-to-save-the-world-303x400

Did the “The Committee to Save the World” actually save the world or did it introduce a lot more moral hazard into the global financial system?

We don’t need crisis managers – we need strict and predictable monetary policy rules

We need to stop thinking of central bankers as crisis managers. They are not crisis managers and to the extent they try to be crisis managers they are not necessarily good crisis managers. As long as there is a monopoly on money issuance the central bank’s role is to ensure nominal stability and act of as lender of last resort. Nothing more than that.

To the extent the central bank should play a role in a crisis it should ensure nominal stability by providing an elastic supply of money. Hence, in the event of a drop in money velocity the central bank should increase the money base to stabilize nominal GDP. Second, the central bank shall act as lender-of-last resort and provide liquidity against proper collateral. Those are the core central bank tasks. Often central banks have failed on these key roles – the Fed certainly failed on that in 2008 when the Primary Dealer system broke down and the Fed effectively failed to act as a lender-of-last resort and allowed money-velocity to collapse without increasing the money base enough to offset it.

On the other hand the Fed got involved in tasks that it should never have gotten itself into – such as bank rescue and credit policies.

A stable monetary and financial system is strictly rule based. There should be very clear rules for what tasks the central bank are undertaking and how they are doing it. The central bank’s reaction function should be clearly defined. Furthermore, bank resolution, supervision and enforcement of capital requirements etc. should also be strictly rule based.

If we have a strictly rule based monetary policy and rule-based financial regulation (for example very clearly defined norms for banking resolution) then we will strongly reduce the risk of economic and financial crisis in the first place.  That would completely eliminate the argument for central banking firefighters. Public Choice theory, however, tells us that that might not be in the interest of firefighters – because why would we need firefighters if there are not fires?

Finally let me quote Robert Hetzel’s conclusion on the Asian crisis from his book on the history of the Fed (pp 215):

“…market irrationality was not the source of the financial crisis that began in 1997. The fundamental source was the moral hazard created by the investor safety net put together by the no-fail policies of governments in emerging-market economies for their financial sectors and underwritten by the IMF credit lines. The Fed response to the Asia crisis would propagate asset market volatility by exacerbating a rise in U.S. equity markets”

Hence, the firefighters created the conditions for the Asian crisis and following stock market bubble. And we should remember that today. Because central bankers over the past five years have acted as discretionary firefighters (the Larry Summers playbook) they rather than acting within a rule based monetary policy framework might instead very well have laid the foundation for the next crisis by further increasing moral hazard problems in the global financial system. Paradoxically enough central bankers have been extremely reluctant about doing what they are meant to do – ensuring nominal stability by providing an elastic money supply – but have happily ventured into credit policies and bailouts.

PS Given the discussion some might be wrongly led to conclude that I think monetary easing is the same as moral hazard. That, however, is not the case. See a discussion of that topic here. We have had too tight monetary policy in the euro zone and the US in the past five years, but far too much credit policy and too much moral hazard.

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